December 29, 2011

Winter Sun Steps Down A Well In Mehrauli

On a freezing cold December morning in Delhi some years ago, two men sought a patch of sunlight along a narrow walkway that runs along each of the five tiers of an old step well dating back from early 1200s, most likely 1230 AD.

Gandhak ki Baoli, as the stepwell located in Mehrauli is known, comprises of a shaft well to provide drinking water, and a main tank the residents once used to clean and wash. Both lay dry when I visited the historic remnant of Delhi’s past, dried largely from neglect and indifference.

While I envied the two men their comforting blanket of warmth, I steered clear of the walkways that got narrower with successive tiers descending to the well. As you descend deeper, down each tier, the approach narrows as if preparing to gather you into an all consuming embrace.

From the uppermost tier the same level as the adjacent street, the steps gradually disappeared from sight before they were swallowed up by an opening at the bottom, dark and mysterious.

In a fanciful moment, the kind frozen feet give wings to, I wondered if stepping into the opening would somehow magically transfer wandering feet back in time by eight centuries and deposit them at the very moment the first digger poised to strike the earth to the plan engineers had laid out for constructing this stepwell.

Leaves from an overhanging tree swept the stones with their shadows as a faint breeze stirred life in the vicinity while the sun warmed them.

We were a couple of hours shy of noon though I couldn’t be sure if sunlight would pierce the drop all the way down at noon. Surely it must be wary of what awaited it at the bottom.

Leaving the two men behind to bask in the sun we climbed the steps back up and reentered the humdrum of the Delhi street. And the winter sprung its embrace once again.

It was the last day of that year, not of the winter though.

December 25, 2011

Bandra’s American Express Bakery On Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve in Bandra is no time to step into the bakery on Hill Road across the street from the Holy Family Hospital, not far from the intersection with Waroda Road that meanders through the old Anglo-Indian locality of the same name, and find someone to tell you why it’s named as American Express Bakery.

It’s definitely not a good idea to ask after the origin of its name let alone how old it is, not after an undated newspaper piece on the American Express Bakery, titled Some of the finest products in town, and yellowing from passage of time, framed and hanging proudly from the wall, starts off with:

Mr. Ross Carvalho, the owner of American Express Bakery, is unaware of the exact date the bakery [jumbled print from a cut in the paper] be a 100 years old. “It is definitely 65 years old, we have bills dating that far back,” he says.

The black and white photo accompanying the framed newspaper article, Some of the finest products in town, apparently shows the shopfront on Clare Road, Byculla. The one in Bandra we had stepped into on the evening of Christmas Eve last year is one of the three outlets of the American Express Bakery. The other two, the newspaper piece reported, are located in Santa Cruz, and Cumballa Hill. It added, “The establishment at Clare Road is the Head Office and the bakery.”

Since the framed print did not carry a byline, let alone a date, and I’m no expert in dating paper from the degree of yellowing subjected by time, I safely assume that no less than twenty years have elapsed since the piece first appeared in the series titled: Old Curiosity Shoppe . . . No 58.

Twenty years felt just right for the perceptible yellowing of paper. It felt just right to age it by two decades for no other reason than to distinguish it from the changes India began witnessing following its dallying with economic liberalisation, a period that would leave a certain way of life firmly behind, including the character of old that Bombay represented, a character that still survives in Bandra in patches, not in the least in the balconies projecting over the street below where elderly women in floral print skirts step out for air and watch the world go by, hailing familiar neighbourhood faces in Konkani. It was not the moment to dwell on any further, for the shelves along the walls were brimming with cakes and other goodies that typically bring up the end of the year in Bandra.

On a whiteboard, for the benefit of its customers, a roll call of confectionery announced their availability:

Fruit Mince Pies
Date Bars
Christmas Pudding
Gram Sweet (Doce De Grao)
Guava Cheese
Dundee Cake
Ginger Bread Cake
Chocolate Muffins
Cinnamon Roll

There was more in the wooden shelves, in cane baskets labeled, wrapped and lined up in neat rows. A few were empty, either awaiting the arrival of stock or cleaned up by patrons making an early run on the bakery before heading back to their homes to prepare for the evening, and the Midnight Mass when they would make their way to the Mount Mary Church among other churches in Bandra and lend their soul to hyms that would stir the Bandra night, gladdening many a heart within earshot, an uplifting tune in the breeze blowing in from the sea off the road that snakes past the hill along its base.

For last minute Christmas shoppers, a board outside the bakery assured that the bakery would remain open all day on Christmas so long as they didn’t expect the bakery to pack their purchases in plastic bags. In addition to a handwritten notice, a poster in the bakery left little ambiguity in the bakery’s stand on using plastic. It said, rather asked before answering it for the customer.

Want To Help Bandra?

Don’t Ask For Plastic Bags.

And that was that. I find it difficult to imagine why anyone would want to pack their bakery purchases in plastic instead of in a brown paper bag. It’s like drinking Falooda from a beaten steel tumbler when glass beckons. As with brown paper that extends the fragrances of its contents, so does glass heighten the visual appetite for the rainbow coloured Falooda.

Past the Christmas tree blinking with colourful lights and welcoming customers stepping into the bakery, the streets bustled with Christmas shoppers. The winter sun had turned mellow as the evening set in over Bandra. A stocking hung in the front so Santa Claus would not miss it. Either way I doubted if Santa Claus would’ve missed the bakery from the road, for the lights illuminating the shelves announced a variety of confectionary to passersby on their way about town.

Within minutes of our stepping into the small outlet of the American Express Bakery, customers came filing past. From the opening at the back of the bakery the staff came carrying breads, cakes, muffins, and more.

In no time I was window shopping fragrances of freshly baked goodies, including confectionery and snacks and found myself lingering just a wee bit longer by the cane baskets.

If it wasn’t for the consideration of fresh arrivals looking to find their way past the older arrivals I would’ve stayed longer sampling more of the confectionery the shelves advertised.

I need not have worried, for stepping out of the bakery later I noticed a crowd further down the road. On approaching the crowd, A-1 bakery revealed itself. While there was no shop floor to meander about and stop by shelves, A-1 Bakery’s shop front was sufficient invitation if one was prepared to crane one’s neck and reach over heads to place and receive orders.

I cannot remember passing the American Express Bakery’s outlets in Santa Cruz, and Cumballa Hill, for if you’re looking for baked treats in the week heading into Christmas, it’s Bandra you head to. With its decidedly Goan Catholic flavour, and the not inconsiderable Anglo-Indian presence you could be forgiven for thinking that only Bandra’s bakeries do justice to confectionery in the flavours that bring Goa alive.

It’s a perception not without reason. I would readily breeze into a bakery owned by a Carvalho, a Gonsalves, a Rodrigues, a Pinto, a Noronha than walk into one owned by a Kulkarni, a Deshpande, a Jadhav, a Jain and the like even if migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Orissa were to man Noronha's ovens as is very likely. A name is a cultural association; in its longevity is invested a certain integrity by way of being true to its origins, steadfast to its cause; in this case, the recipe. Handed down generations, the feel for culinary heritage shared across generations is expected to make for authenticity. And therein lies its draw, and charm.

It’s inevitable for a city like Bandra, with a culture considerably shaped by and originally identified with the Christian community, given that the Portuguese turned it over to Jesuit priests as early as mid 1500s, to set an expectation among visitors come looking for flavours not readily available elsewhere in Mumbai. Even if they are, it’s likely they’re scattered about. The Roman Catholic churches that dot Bandra strengthen its distinct character.

It obviously matters little now if Bandra’s population shows little or no resemblance to the original mix of Christians of Goan origin, the Anglo-Indians, the Parsis. The impressions and the expectations live on in Bandra’s Bakeries, more so around Christmas time.

Later that evening, we made our way up the hill to the celebrated Mount Mary church and were treated to prayers a group of nuns were practicing for the midnight mass later that night.

In the video below, meander about the Mount Mary Church with me and waft with the mellowing crescendo rolling off the walls and the ceiling, before sliding off paintings depicting the life of Christ, his mission, his travails, and the meaning he sought for the faithful.

Wishing everyone Merry Christmas.

December 11, 2011

Books Travellers Read in Mumbai Locals – Part IV

Continuing with my series, this is PART IV of my ongoing attempt to note the books my fellow travellers read in Mumbai local trains on their way to work and back.

Pictures can mislead. And, if a picture as they say is worth a thousand words, then it can mislead in a thousand words as well.

And if the picture is a book’s cover, well, you know what they say about not judging a book by its cover. But let it not stop you from imagining the story even if you aren’t given to judging it by the cover.

And on Mumbai local trains, the books people read on their daily commute in trains is among the more welcome distractions on the journey when Gujarati businessmen are not wrangling with their suppliers in that distinctly Gujju Hindi that rings loud and clear about the train compartment, muting other conversations as they tune in to the insistent one.

So when I glanced up at my fellow passenger who had just about managed to board the Dadar Local, I paused for a moment upon seeing the cover of the book he had fished out of his bag and buried his face in no sooner he had found a seat in the corner by the train window. In no time his face was lost to me behind the book cover.

And I had The Goat, The Sofa, and Mr. Swami for company on the rest of my journey. The unmistakable outline of the Indian Parliament building jumped out of the cover. A car lolled about in the street in front of the Parliament building, cleverly constructed out of letters making up the name of the author, R. Chandrasekar, more likely than not, a Tamil Brahmin, possibly a bureaucrat I thought at the moment. Later I learnt he was a former financial analyst.

Towering banks of lights rose from within the Parliament building, lights Indians would associate with cricket stadiums. What were these flash lights doing in the Parliament? Lighting up games Parliamentarians routinely play? Keeping a watch over politicians ‘fixing’ voting a la the infamous JMM episode? Illuminating politicians batting the ball into another’s corner? Watching over the Opposition clean bowl Treasury benches?

What were the lights for? To light up political shenanigans for a public weaned on reality shows with appetite for more? I didn’t really know for sure, but the book cover offered enough fodder to feed the imagination. And the goat in the mix? Unless the goat was the electorate, calmly and routinely led to the slaughter post-elections, time after time.

Not for a moment did the fellow passenger look away from the book, not even when the train stopped at railway stations along the way to take in fresh cascades of commuters barreling into the compartment like a river breaching a dam.

What was a Swami doing in the mix of the Parliament, the Goat, and the Sofa? Sofa? I was reminded of Chandraswami, remember him? The infamous Godman of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s time? The Tantrik?

The Goat, The Sofa, and Mr. Swami. Well. I’m yet to read the book. I learnt it revolves around the intersection of Cricket, the Indian Prime Minister, the Pakistani Prime Minister who invites himself to a cricket series being played between the two in India, and a certain Mr. Swami. For the rest, read the book. While I was tempted to tap the reader on the opposite seat for his take on the book, I left him alone to survive the evening journey back home immersed in R. Chandrasekar’s book, an escape into the gathering night while I delved into various possibilities, all afforded by a book cover.

Facebook Page of The Goat, The Sofa, and Mr. Swami.

Talking of Pakistan and the Pakistani Prime Minister, I saw Mumbai train commuters take an active interest in Jaswant Singh’s book on Jinnah, the man who pushed for the partition of India after barely ever participating in the drive for independence from the British in the years leading upto 1947.

Muhammed Ali Jinnah was not the kind to dirty his hand-tailored suits and starched shirts, let alone his Sherwanis and Karakul hats, in the ‘lowly’ task of fighting for independence from the colonial power, it was far easier and convenient to direct the bloodshed of people with his call to Direct Action using the Muslim League than wage a long, hard struggle for freedom from British rule along with the Gandhis and the Nehrus.

I wondered if it was a coincidence that Jaswant Singh’s book on Jinnah had its spine coloured red, the colour of blood shed in its millions by Jinnah's call for a separate homeland for the Muslims, Pakistan. The bloodletting still continues in the neighbouring country, among their own kind this time around!

Jaswant Singh’s expulsion from the Bharatiya Janata Party must have helped pique interest in the tome. For a time, it was not uncommon to find Mumbai train commuters immersed in the book, television debates raising its visibility and contributing to the hype around the already hyped up relations between the two countries.

I miss hearing birds about my travels around Mumbai unless I were to make my way to Byculla to the verdant patch that’s home to a zoo, or to Yeeor Hills, a contiguous part of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Borivali aside from a few scattered patches of green in the Bombay of before.

With the exception of pigeons and crows, and the occasional sparrow, there’s little else to show for birds in much of Mumbai. Shrikes, Drongos, Barbets among others are conspicuous by their absence in the concrete jungle the city’s been turned into over the years.

Cumballa Hill is a hill in name only, and it’s no different with other ‘hills’, including Antop. If you’re keen on seeing Hornbills, you’ll have to make your way to Fort, to the Salim Ali Chowk to see the logo of the Bombay Natural History Society, the Great Hornbill. It mostly lives in Mumbai in a logo on the stone wall.

So I was surprised to say the least on finding a middle-aged man seated in the corner by the window poring over an illustrated book of birds, flipping pages, unmindful of the racket at railway stations along the way.

If ever there was an oasis of peace in a train compartment of Mumbai local trains, even if in the pages of a Birding Guide, that moment qualified for it, for the one immersed in the promise of nature and the other delighting in the reader’s interest survive a city largely denuded of its feathered bounty.

From the photographs in the book, it appeared the Birding Guide was geared to introducing the common birds an urban dweller might expect to see if city planners had accounted for and retained green cover in Mumbai.

But then Mumbai is a different kettle of fish, and while its city planners had accounted for it in the beginning, as is evident in the gardens, and parks and other formerly open areas, the caliber of governance in recent years, influenced in no small measure by the suspect quality of people elected to positions of power, has seen a steady deterioration to a point where birds are reduced to living on the pages of a book.

It doesn’t take a detective agency to unearth the causes of decay in governance, living standards, and the grind of the daily commute, certainly not of the caliber of The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

It’s not a book I see often in the hands of Mumbai railway commuters. Apparently, it’s a series of episodic novels by Alexander McCall Smith, an author of Scottish origin.

The first time I learnt of the existence of the series was when I saw it in the hands of a bearded fellow commuter on a rainy day in Mumbai who would dutifully carry a long handle umbrella in the manner of the old gentleman carrying an umbrella and looking out to sea on the cover of Sooni Taraporevala’s PARSIS: The Zoroastrians of India; A Photographic Journey.

The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency had piqued the interest of others in the train compartment as it had mine. It was an uncommon title in a setting where travelers were more used to seeing commuters carry titles by Michael Crichton, Jeffrey Archer, and Sidney Sheldon among others than a title by Alexander McCall Smith.

It’s rare I pass a fortnight by without seeing someone reading Michael Crichton, among my favourites as well.

The elderly gentleman had placed Michael Crichton’s NEXT on the seat beside him. I initially mistook his action to mean he was reserving a seat for a fellow commuter. It wasn’t to be.

As the train pulled out of the station, he snapped out of his short nap and dived into Crichton’s NEXT, a book that apparently originated after Michael Crichton returned to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla in 2005, where he had done postdoctoral work, to attend a conference on Genetics and Law sponsored by the Jefferson Institute. He was surprised and outraged by what he learned about the current laws regarding a range of issues in genetics. He immediately put aside what he had been working on, and began research for the book that became NEXT. He modeled the structure after the genome itself, incorporating fragments of popular culture, and writing a series of stories that sometimes interconnected, and sometimes didn't. The result was a very atypical novel. (Source)

Michael Crichton, The Official Site.

The Da Vinci Code continues to hold its own over the years. The only thing that surprises me when I see yet another traveler on a Mumbai local train immersed in Dan Brown’s book is not why he’s reading it but why he is so late in reading it. A sentiment I kept to myself upon seeing a South Indian commuter with neatly combed hair, a red and ash coloured tika gracing his forehead, engrossed in the Da Vinci Code.

Jeffrey Archer’s Shall We Tell The President has pushed his other bestseller Kane And Abel hard for a place in the reading hearts of Mumbai train commuters.

It’s to the book’s credit that commuters will hang on to handle bars on their long commute to the office and back, sufficiently gripped by the plot to be lost to the world around them, a moment of peace fathomed among the pages of a book to the comforting feel of paper.

Note: Read PART I, PART II, and PART III in my series noting the books my fellow travelers read in Mumbai local trains on their way to work and back, and sometimes on their way elsewhere around the city.

A Request: I would appreciate it very much if you would note/credit and link back here if this post inspired you to do a series or a variation of the series of your own.

Since this is a part of my larger India Reading Project involving books and the reading people, I’ll be counting on the link-back for continued and further participation of new readers.

Related Posts in my India Reading Project Series

1. Granthayan, A Mobile Book Store
2. Indian Copy

December 03, 2011

Conversations, And Backdrops in Jodhpur

Walking down Jodhpur’s M. G. H Road in the heat of the September Sun, a middle-aged man broke his stride upon receiving a call on his phone.

It soon became apparent that it was not a call to be answered hurriedly, and certainly not one to carry on with while dodging passers-by on the street. The call called for a more pleasant setting, some shade, and a place to recline and answer in leisure, making me wonder who was on the other line.

There was little chance I would ever find out but it didn’t stop me from wondering about likely possibilities, and they certainly weren’t mundane possibilities. Wandering does that to imagination.

Looking around for a place more appropriate to the occasion, the man soon found respite from the searing Sun on the steps of an old stone building, leaning against a stone pillar as he stretched himself out on the steps.

Rust had eaten away the letters on the metal nameplate that I had initially mistaken for wood. However, adjacent to the nameplate, letters stenciled in black ink on the wooden door survived to indicate the nature of the establishment: Bharat Tent House.

I cannot remember clearly if Bharat Tent House was housed in the Sanghi Das building, or if it was in an adjacent building. It shared the open area in the front with other commercial properties, including a TV Repair shop.

By now the man was deep in conversation, occasionally smiling as he threw his head back against the floral designs carved in the stone pillar and looked around absently, his mobile phone held firmly to his ear. It was inevitable I would linger around, eyes trailing along the contours of his backdrop, pausing every inch of the way along the fa├žade etched with decorative patterns on pilasters projecting from the wall, lending the door on either side ample relief.

The pilasters ended in fine stone corbels on which rested the entablature projecting from the wall, over the fading blue door. I couldn’t tell for sure if the carved corbels projecting from the wall were merely decorative elements or actually bore the load of the entablature over the door.

The weather beaten door was locked, its blue reminding of the sky in a city that sits at the gatepost of the Thar desert. It was a magical moment, a Jodhpur moment, no less.

And I wondered again, this time around not of who might be on the other line but if his conversation was as interesting as his backdrop.

December 01, 2011

Circle Of Yellow

Tughlaqabad, 2009.

Visitors to Tughlaqabad catch up on a bit of fun with the Frisbee in the backdrop of the ruins of the fort near Delhi dating back from early 1300s.

Delhi gets cold in the winter. While Toshi and I were warmed up from tramping up and down the old fort along its high ramparts, others chased the Frisbee to warm up and bond among the ruins.

In the persuasive haze of the Delhi winter, the bright yellow Frisbee reminded of the Sun to those of us who sought it to beat the cold. As the circle of yellow cut through the air, it brought some cheer in its wake, even if of the fleeting, floating kind.